Mohammed Dajani Daoudi led 27 students in a trip to the former nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, in Poland. While Jewish students’ visits to Palestinian refugee camps to understand the 1948 Nakba never generated controversy, the lecturer has been object of threats and insults. On his way back to the occupied-West Bank, he resigned from al-Quds University. It was not a surrender, he said, but “a critical rebuttal of the lack of academic freedom.” (Read more…)
Mohammed Suleiman Dajani Daoudi, who founded the Wasatia “Muslim moderate” movement in Palestine in 2007, is a Muslim intellectual born in Jerusalem in 1946. He descends from a well-known Palestinian family. His great grandfather Sheikh Ahmad Dajani (1459-1561) was appointed by the Ottoman Sultan as the custodian for the King David Tomb in Jerusalem.
Dajani, a former Fatah guerrilla, is now an Islamic activist seeking, according to his own words, to “Islamize’ his community, “bringing it more closely into line with middle-ground Islamic values and Quranic teaching”. He highlights a “moderate Islam” in his lectures, books, articles, and workshops. In his view, “there is a serious gap between the ‘rules of the game’ and the ‘training of the coach.’”
In his 2010 book, Wasatia: The Spirit of Islam, he states that “Islam came to transform humanity from the ‘age of jahiliyya’, i.e. ‘age of ignorance’ (the paganism of pre-Islamic Arabia), to an ‘age of knowledge, wisdom, and light’. His goal, he adds, is “to bring unity, peace, freedom, and justice to a world torn by divisiveness, corruption, and strife”.
Dajani advocates social norms and political agendas that coincide with the tenets of liberalism. His goal “is not to twist Islam in a new direction but rather to steer Muslims to a centrist path”. He wants,as he said, “to build a bridge across an intractable divide”.
The professor rejects “using terrorism, violence and armed struggle to end the Israeli occupation”, considering it “futile and unproductive”. He views targeting civilians to “contradict with the Islamic faith and identity”.
For Dajani, a jihadist war against Israel is not the answer to end the Israeli occupation and gain their independence. His answer is “dialogue and negotiations, and at the same time investing time and money in people to people activities to build a human base among the masses to facilitate the dissemination of a culture of peace and moderation”.
Both Israeli and Palestinian “moderates should join forces to change public opinion in favor of the peace process”, he argued.
At a time when Palestinians find their own identity in religion, Dajani says that he does”not prioritize religion over other identities” nor does he call for “promoting its application in government, politics, law, culture, and education.”
His strategy to embrace the Palestinian mainstream motivated by religious faith is through “a moderate political/religious agenda aimed to gain credibility within the Muslim community to establish a somewhat religious though liberal democratic system”.
Dajani wants to see Muslim women in universities and the workplace as professors, doctors, artists, lawyers, etc. without any gender discrimination, male domination, or segregation from men.
He advocates women’s full participation in public life. He discourages women to wear the veil maintaining that Muslim women can show respect for God by demonstrating faith and virtue in deed rather than in the way they dress. This, he underlines, “should please feminists, civil society activists, and human rights advocates”. He offers “a model of integration as full citizens as ordained in the Quran”.
Before announcing the launching of Wasatia, I lived in the shadows of my country’s politics, refraining from assuming any political position within the cadre of the Palestinian Authority. Between 1967 and 1975, I was an active Fatah leader calling for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state on its rubbles. In 1975, I started my long journey in search for a homeland and identity that took me to England, the United States, Jordan, and eventually two decades later bringing him back to his final destination in Palestine, earning two doctorate degrees on the way and publishing numerous academic books and articles.
As a technical advisor to the Palestinian Authority and professor of political science at al-Quds University, Dajani kept his distance from what he calls “the corrupt and autocratic political system that emerged in Palestine in the wake of the Oslo peace process”.
But he has been gradually “crept into the light” as his country “moves closer and closer to civil war having been divided into two mini-states, a religious Islamic entity in Gaza led by Hamas moving in the sphere of Iran, and a secular entity in the West Bank led by Fatah and influenced by the United States”.
Dismayed at “the impact of extremism and radicalism on his society and the growing despair” among his people, he pushed toward establishing “an eagle of hope soaring the skies of Palestine with one wing seeking political and religious moderation, while the other seeking to usher economic development and prosperity”.
How did you come up with the idea of visiting Auschwitz, last May ?
In February 2011, I was invited by Aladdin organization in Paris to visit Auschwitz along with 150 religious leaders from around the globe. The trip was an eye-opener for a Palestinian Arab Muslim moderate who was raised in a culture that denies the atrocities of the Holocaust or views it as the cause of its national catastrophe of 1948, or believes it was a coordinated effort between Nazism and Zionism to force Jews to support establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.
The bestiality of what I saw made me decide not to be a bystander and to carry the message back with me to Palestine. Two months later, I co-authored an article with Robert Satloff entitled, Why should the Palestinians learn about the Holocaust?, the co-authored a book in Arabic about the Holocaust.
Then as part of a joint project with Friedrich Schiller University of Jena and funded by the German Research Foundation, we started this project to study the impact of empathy on feelings for reconciliation and conflict resolution.
Can you describe the visit?
Most of the Palestinian students participating in the trip attended a course on reconciliation at the American Studies Institute at al-Quds University. We announced about the trip by word of mouth and received 70 applicants of which we selected 30 students. We bought them tickets and got them visas. Two girls dropped out and one Hamas supporter was not allowed to travel by the Israeli authorities.
We spent two days at Krakow, Poland, learning about the living conditions of Jews in the Jewish neighbourhoods before the Holocaust, then we spend three days at Auschwitz, two days visiting the camp and one day for exchanging views about he visit. It was highly impressive for the students to go through such an experience.
What kind of questions did the participants pose while visiting the camp?
They asked many questions and learnt much from the answers. Unfortunately, distorted news of the trip published in Palestinian press started the incitement about the trip since it claimed that it was organized by Israeli universities and funded by Jewish organizations.
Students started to worry and to be defensive stressing the visit was educational and it should not imply that it did not mean that to give up on their national claims and aspirations to statehood and self-determination.
Were you prepared for the accusations of treason, insults and death threats against you? Why is that Israeli students visiting refugee camps to learn about the Nakba [what the Palestinians call to their forced exile after the creation of Israel in 1948] does not arise the same revulsion?
We were not prepared, because we viewed it from educational perspectives while all the others looked at it from a political perspective seeing it as helping promote the Zionist cause against the Palestinians. The Israeli students visits to the refugee camps, which took place before our own [to Auschwitz], did not arise the same revulsion because there were other similar trips by Israelis while this was the first trip by Palestinians.
Why is it so difficult for Israelis/Jews and Palestinians to recognize their respective narratives?
It is difficult because they take a clashing course, one struggling to wipe out the other and to be the more dominant. I believe if each respects the narrative of the other without having to adopt it, we may reach peace and coexistence.
At what extent did the Auschwitz visit change the perceptions of your students about the Holocaust, since some of them were also encouraged to not share their experiences in public?
The Auschwitz visit changed the perceptions of my students about the Holocaust dramatically providing them with new information, which they did not know before. It will take time for them to adjust but, eventually, the seeds will bear fruit.
Would you define the students’ trip to Auschwitz as the biggest challenge yet of your personal journey and academic career?
Yes, it was one of the biggest challenges yet. Knowing the highly sensitive nature of the Holocaust to the Palestinian national identity, I did realize that walking in this minefield has great risks.
Even before we left to Auschwitz, I received warning not to go, and an e-mail from al-Quds University president discouraging from going, and asking to inform students accompanying me that this is not a university project and both are doing it on our own responsibility.
I did inform participants of this development and made them sign consent forms to be on the trip. I realized that violating the codes of society and delving into taboo topics had its high risks.
Many Palestinian leaders before were assassinated for opting to take untrodden paths among them a cousin of mine, Hassan Sidqi Omar al-Dajani (1890–1938) a journalist, lawyer, and politician who graduated from the University of Cambridge with a law degree.
He was one of the leading figures of the Dajani-Nashashibi faction, which opposed the Husseini faction in the struggle for leadership of Palestinian politics. Like most of the Dajani notables, he held moderate views on Palestinian politics opposed the strident anti-Jewish views of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem.
In 1938, when he planned to testify before the Woodhead Commission which arrived in Palestine to examine the prospects for implementing the Peel partition plan, Haj Amin al-Husseini learned of this and sent him a letter: ‘Those who go to meet the partition commission should take their shrouds with them.’ He was assassinated in Ramallah in mid-October of 1938 by Haj Amin al-Husseini after being labeled “traitor’ and ‘collaborator.’
His body was found nearby the next day. Both hands were broken and there were two bullet holes in his forehead. His funeral demonstrated his popularity. Representatives of all Jerusalem’s leading families (except the Husseinis) have attended, as did many other people. When the funeral procession passed his office, his pallbearers raised the coffin on the tips of their fingers, an honor reserved for the most respected leaders.
Your links to a neo-conservative institution in the U.S. (The Washington Institute for Middle East Affairs) are one of the reasons that some commentators (like +972 Mag) evoke as a plausible explanation for the criticism you’ve been through. Are you aware that this relationship is turning your mission more difficult than easier?
When I established the [al-Quds University] American Studies Center in 2002, critics said it was a CIA operation to recruit students to work for the CIA.
When I created the Wasatia Initiative for promoting Islamic moderation in 2007, critics said I was funded by the United States to promote Western Islam. Now an educational trip turns to become a wicked political scheme to brainwash Palestinian youth. If I would want to listen to my critics I would end up being a vegetable.
Professor Sari Nusseibeh, former member of the administration board of al-Quds University, considered your letter of resignation as a kind of “surrender”. Why did you give up?
No, it was not giving up but taking the battle to a higher level. My letter of resignation from al-Quds University was a kind of “litmus test” to see whether the university administration supports academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression as they claim or not.
When my students who went to Auschwitz met with the student leaders on campus and members of the Faculty and Employees Union, which fired me from its membership (though I was not a member), they pointed the finger at university officials inciting them against me and against the Auschwitz visit.
Thus, I wanted the president of the university in rejecting my resignation to send a clear message in particular to the university employees and students, and in general, to the Palestinian community, that the university supports academic freedom and they consider my trip as an educational journey in search of knowledge by which I broke no university policy, rules, or regulations.
By accepting my resignation, their message was obvious – ‘there is no place for Dajani’s ideas on our campus. Those who take the same path will end up the same way. ’ Isn’t that the same message the Athenians wanted to sent to Socrates’ students by condemning him to death.
What is your reaction to your university’s statement clarifying its position towards your resignation?
I would rather not talk about it since the administration is accusing me of inciting against the university and distorting its image abroad.
Palestinians have been always on the losing side. Your visit to Auschwitz coincided with the failure of another round of “peace” talks. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas already abandoned the “right of return”, and publicly defined the Holocaust as the “most heinous crime”, while prime-minister Benyamin Netanyahu keeps on building more settlements and the IDF keep on killing Palestinian children. Why being generous to the oppressor who prolongs the occupation of your oppressed people?
Why should expressing my empathy for the suffering of the Jewish people in the past mean I am giving anything to my oppressor? I did not do it for them but for me. I do not want to remain a bystander even if the victims of the suffering I show empathy for are my perpetrators and occupiers.
Hate, racism, and bigotry spread when a reign of terror rules and fear cripples the good people and they freeze as bystanders doing nothing to protest evil… making evil become more and more powerful. That is why I took it upon myself not to be a bystander. In this struggle of corrupt politics, hijacked religion, and lost morality, I decided not to be a bystander.
In going to Auschwitz, we were seeking knowledge. We wanted to know what has happened; why did it happen; how can it be prevented from happening again? I believe it is very important to break this wall of bigotry, ignorance and racism that has separated us from crossing over to this new realm.
When one of my students asked me why we should learn about the Holocaust when the Israelis want to ban even the use of the word Nakba, my response was simple: ‘Because in doing so, you will be doing the right thing.’
Wasatia : A mixture of “moderate Islam” and secularism
It was in late 2006 during the month of Ramadan. My house used to overlook the Ram checkpoint. I was standing on the balcony of my office observing hundreds of Palestinians from the West Bank trying to pass through the checkpoint to reach Jerusalem to pray in the Haram al-Sharif [or Temple Mount] and al-Aqsa Mosque.
The soldiers at the checkpoint pushed the people back and threw tear gas grenades at them but to no avail. Suddenly, I noticed that things cooled down. A compromise had been struck. The Israeli army provided buses to transport the people to Jerusalem while holding their identity cards, which they delivered back to them upon their return.
This made me think: Those are moderate religious Muslims. Had they been radical, or infiltrated by extremists, they would have used violence to get media attention. However, they opted to accept a peaceful compromise, a win-win situation.
So who represents these people? Consequently, Wasatia was established on January 1, 2007 and its first annual conference was held on Wednesday, March 21, 2007. For me, the Shariah – the system of Muslim jurisprudence – should not necessarily be the law of the land but as a guiding moral code to the Palestinian legal system.
I do not call for the implementation of “hudud” penalties – including the stoning of adulterers or the severance of a thief’s hand – and urges a reinterpretation of the Quranic verses. Rather than create more disabilities and invalids in society, the state should work on improving social and economic conditions to deal with spreading social diseases.
I advocate a moderate Islamist vision of an independent democratic Palestinian state with civil institutions and the rule of law. I place great emphasis on state building. State builders could mobilize resources, coordinate action, levy taxes and seek aid in accomplishing the task of developing its institutional and administrative capacities.
Israel should fear a weak Palestinian state but not a strong one since its potential strength would usher regional prosperity, stability and security.
My initiative called Wasatia, a term that literally means moderation, centrism, and mid-ground, and used in the Holy Quran to mean justice and balance, raises as its slogan a verse from Surat al-Baqarat (the Cow Surah, [And We have created you Ummattan Wasattan, a mid-ground nation]).
This slogan is extremely powerful in mobilising the religious masses, since this is verse 143 of the Cow Surat which contains 286 verses.’ As the new movement speeds from recognition to promise to hope, to delivery, it is perhaps natural that its critics pulled out their daggers.
My critics argue that it would be naive to believe that governments should adopt moderate policies since it is politically known that governments generally adopt policies that serve their best interests. Wasatia was registered as a charitable organisation in 2010.
I propose to have the PA Ministry of Education include the moderate Islamic values of Wasatia as part of the school curriculum and to work with the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Religious Affairs to have mosque preachers trained on the Islamic middle-ground creed.
A number of religious scholars and leaders took upon themselves to give lectures in schools universities, to preach in mosques, and to publish articles on wasatia in the local press.
I aspire to unleash a surge of egalitarian and democratic passions that will bring the average man into the political arena. I hope that the coming year will hold more promise as an increasing number of people join his crusade.
What may seem little or modest progress by the standards of his critics, counts as a big jump by his standards. A year ago, Wasatia, as a term and a movement, was unheard of; now it is on the table and has a political, economic, and social agenda.
My book, Al-Wasatia, From Theory to Practice, first published in January 2007, rests on one simple idea: the meaning of life is found in living in moderation—‘ this is the soul of all religions since the beginning.’ The book presents mid-ground and centrism ideas as portrayed in the holy books as well as articulated by the various religious thinkers and political philosophers.
How does this square with the belief of radical Moslems that Islam is ‘‘religion of God’’? This interpretation with verses from the Holy Quran asserts that the faithful would not be good believers until they profess full faith in God, His books, and His apostles with no reservation or distinction among them.
I am fully convinced that my message of justice, balance, and moderation will one day reach not only Palestinians in Palestine but other Moslems around the world.
The political turmoil fuelled by Israel’s continued military occupation coupled with the economic deteriorating conditions led many Palestinians to abandon their traditional character of being moderate to espouse radicalism and suicide bombings.
But I hope that the message of Wasatia would bring both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion closer to having more faith in negotiations and dialogue with each realising that the cake need to be shared not trampled on.
What about the desired Palestinian state? Will Wasatia advocate an Islamic caliphate or a secular political system that calls for the separation of state and religion, similar to that of the United States?
True to the call, Wasatia calls for a mid-course. It wants to follow the American tradition of protecting religion from the arbitrary power of the state, while at the same time, adheres to the European tradition of protecting the state from religious radicalism, conservatism, fanaticism, and fundamentalism.
I maintain that the Palestinians neither share the American sense of deep distrust for government (nearly seven out of ten Americans believe that they cannot trust the government to do the right thing most of the time), nor the European sense of deep distrust of religion.
In contrast, the Palestinians have trust in both state and religion and as such favor a formula of coexistence between them. For that end, Wasatia seeks to find a happy medium where the state has laws facilitating freedom of religion, and religion do not impose on the state its Shariah laws and restrictions as advocated by those with a radical religious bent.
In a future state, Wasatia will work to strike a balance between the American constitutional democracy on the one hand, and the European parliamentary democracies on the other.
As promised, I am striving to deliver a real departure from all other Palestinian religious parties and organizations. He calls for a balance between rationality and emotions to end the cycle of conflict and violence that marred the past. ‘
When I question the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, one of my intentions is to spare the younger generation the experience of growing up as Moslem minority in a Jewish state. Rather, I would like our children experience growing up as a majority in a Palestinian state. This would greatly enrich their lives.
My message to the people is simple: ‘‘Let’s not let the heavy burdens of the past bury the promises of the future. Let’s adhere by God’s call for justice, tolerance, freedom of religion, acceptance of the other, that the next generation may live in peace and harmony.’’
The Palestinians must take the bitter pill that Israel is ‘‘here to stay,’’ on the other side, the Israelis must also take the bitter pill to make them understand that the creation of the Palestinian state is an essential need to fulfill the quest for Palestinian identity.
The longer the Israeli occupation continues and Palestinian demands remain unaddressed, the more the ground continues to remain fertile for radicalism and fanaticism. Both Israelis and Palestinians, known for being two intelligent people of learning and culture, must have realised those simple facts.’
It takes both rain and sunshine to make a rainbow. In a similar way, it takes both fanaticism and submission to make Wasatia. Though the winds of adversity is trying to blow our values away, our audacity and determination is so strong and vigorous that we will keep pushing that those values will continue spreading and growing to new heights.
We have inherited this conflict from our grand fathers, and we want our grand children to inherit peace from us.
The man who wants to see “the human face of the enemy”
Mohammed Suleiman Dajani Daoudi was born in 1946 in the West side of Jerusalem but was forced to move to the East section of the city when the 1948 war broke leaving behind all his family property and belongings. He studied his elementary and secondary education at the Friends School in Ramallah graduating in 1964.
As a Quaker school, it taught him “temperance, tolerance and coexistence”. He remembers Dean Farid Tabri, a Christian who studied at al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo, reading at the assembly meetings held twice a week at school, once from the Bible and once from the Quran.
Hhe graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in June 1972 with a bachelor degree in Mass Communication where he got involved in radical politics. In 1975 he decided to divorce politics and leave to the United States to study. In 1976 he got his Masters of Arts degree from the University of Eastern Michigan at Ypsilanti, Michigan.
In 1981, he joined the University of South Carolina graduating with a doctorate degree. In 1983 he joined the University of Texas at Austin graduating with a second doctorate degree. He taught at both universities.
Dajani, a prominent Jerusalemite Palestinian family estimated to be the largest in Palestine, is deeply rooted in the history of Palestine, and especially as residents of the Holy City of Jerusalem.
It was entrusted by the “Supreme Gate” of the Ottoman Empire to be the Custodian of Prophet David’s Mausoleum at the Mount of Prophet David- referred to also as Mount Zion. The family has a very close-knit fabric with the families of Jerusalem and Palestine.
Considered an upper middle class family, its members excelled in many professions, particularly trade activities and were members of chambers of commerce and industry in Palestine and Jordan.
Two personal experiences changed his life. When the Arab-Israeli War erupted in June 1967, Mohammed was studying at the AUB and was cut-off from his family in Jerusalem. It was only in 1993 that he was able to return to Jerusalem on a family reunion permit.
His father was suffering from cancer and he used to accompany him to the Israeli Ein Karem Hospital where he noticed that Israeli doctors treating him as a patient and not as an Arab or an enemy.
The second experience had to do with his mother. On one Friday afternoon, she asked him and his younger brother Munther to take her for a drive to the beach in Jaffa. Mohammed, Munther, their mother, and Dina, and the 16-year old Munther’s daughter left Jerusalem in their car around four in the afternoon.
They all had dinner at the Opera building in Tel Aviv. Mohammed walked with his niece on the beach. Upon their return, they found his mother starting to have an asthma attack. The inhalers in her bag were empty and pharmacies were closed since it was Sabbath. So they started driving back to Jerusalem hoping to arrive in time for her to use her electric inhaler at home.
On the way back, his mother began to faint and they suspected she was suffering from a heart attack. As they reached near Ben Gurion Airport, Munther who was driving took the airport exit.
As they approached the checkpoint on the entrance of the airport, Mohammed was very skeptic about the security police helping them and was most certain that they would send them away once they knew they were Palestinian Arabs.
Surprisingly, the security guards cleared an area near the entrance, and called for medical assistance. In few minutes ambulances arrived with full team of doctors, nurses, and medical equipment, and for more than two hours they tried to revive her.
Eventually, they succeeded. Then they took her in one of the ambulances to a nearby military hospital. However, on the way to the hospital she died. Since it was Sabbath, they had to leave her at the hospital for the night and drove back to Jerusalem.
They left Jerusalem four and returned three. On our way back, Mohammed kept gazing at his mother’s empty seat and thinking of her and of those who tried to save her.
These personal experiences helped Mohammed Dajani “to see the human face of the enemy” converting him into a “peace activist believing in US and THEM rather than US or THEM”.
Parts of this interview, via e-mail and edited for clarification, were included in two articles originally published in two Portuguese media outlets: the newspaper EXPRESSO, on July 5 2014, and the magazine “Além-Mar”, September 2014 edition